Europe's reactions to the invasion of Afghanistan are aptly summed up in the remark of a Bonn official: "Detente is dead. Long live detente." Europeans are clearly ambivalent about the latest eruption in East-West relations. Their oldest historical memories are still rooted in the infamy of Munich in 1938 when Franco-British appeasement was but a prelude to further aggression on the part of Nazi Germany.
Yet they also remember the chilliest periods of the cold war when the West staggered from crisis to confrontation -- the Berlin blockade in 1948, the Korean war in 1950, Moscow's missile rattling over Suez in 1956, the Berlin crisis of 1958-1962, the showdown over Cuba in 1962.
And as the Europeans look back at the 1960s and '70s, they are reminded how fortunate they have been. Those were the years of detente -- the golden age of postwar European history.
They look back at an era of unprecedented stability on a continent that almost consumed itself in two world wars. While the Americans were fighting in Vietnam; while the Russians were battling the Chinese on the Ussuri; while violence erupted unhampered in the Middle East, Africa, and the Indian subcontinent; Europe remained an island of peace and prosperity in spite of the incredible concentration of power arrayed on either side of the East- West divide.
Hence the ambivalence with which the Europeans react to the ominous events in Afghanistan. They know that unchecked aggression will spread, and they accept that they must support the United States -- the ultimate guarantor of their independence and security.
Yet they are also convinced that vigilance must be tempered by prudence, that unchecked hostility toward the Soviets might well degenerate into a new cold war. And Europeans ask: Will the West, indeed, be better off if we forsake diplomacy for a new arms race, if we cut all our links to the Soviets at a time when communication has become more crucial than ever?
The Europeans proclaim that detente must remain indivisible, while hoping that tensions can, in fact, be kept neatly compartmentalized. Inevitably, this ambivalence has made for confused reactions.
The British, geographically and psychologically at the farthest remove from the Eastern bloc, have taken the hardest line. They have disinvited Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko and pledged full support for American economic measures against the Soviet Union. In addition, the Thatcher government is contemplating the dispatch of a British naval force to the Arabian Sea.
The French, always eager to assert their independence, originally soft-pedaled the Soviet intervention. "Perhaps it was determined by the internal situation in Afghanistan," said French President Giscard d'Estaing. And his Foreign Minister, Jean Francois-Poncet, coldly announced: "We have no intention of modifying our commercial relations with the USSR." Lately, the French seem to have reconsidered. They have promised not to step in to fill the gap created by the American grain embargo.
The West Germans, as exposed militarily as they are vulnerable to political retribution, have protested vigorously while heeding Bismarck's classic advice: "Always keep a channel open to the Russians." Apparently, Chancellor Helmut Schmidt does not intend to cancel his March trips to Moscow and East Berlin.
"In difficult times, we have to talk more, not less," Mr. Schmidt said. Even Bavaria's strong man, Franz-Josef Strauss, the conservative contender for chancellorship in this year's fall elections, has waffled. At a Christian Democratic Party meeting last weekend, he deftly evaded clear-cut prescriptions in favor of balanced generalities, saying: "The invasion of Afghanistan reflects too much of the wrong kind of detente policy and too little of the right kind. . . ."
The architect of Bonn's ostpolitik, SPD party secretary Egon Bahr, refuses to see Afghanistan as the beginning of a new cold war, speaking instead of a "phase of cold detente." The Bonn government, after some initial hesitation, castigated Moscow for its "heavy blow against East-West cooperation." On the other hand, Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher roundly condemned all suggestions of extending NATO's brief to cover non-European contingencies, especially the defense of the West's oil supply routes.
As the largest trade partner of the Soviet Union ($13 billion last year), West Germany stands to lose a great deal from full-scale economic warfare. Hence it came as no surprise when Otto Wolff von Amerongen, spokesman of German industry and commerce, noted: "Boycotts and embargoes have never met with success. We will continue to expand our trade as long as our security is not threatened."
In the meantime, the European Community has decided to halt all butter exports to the Soviet Union, which were heavily subsidized in the first place. The nine-member community also pledged that it "would not directly or indirectly replace" the 17 million tons of grain that Mr. Carter has refused to sell to the Soviets.
A new test of European intentions will come this week when US Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher will probably ask America's allies for a far more controversial commitment -- the curbing of high technology sales like computers, which loom much larger in Europe's trade balance than grain.
So far, however, the administration seems satisfied with the general trend of European rhetoric and reactions.